Whiteheads are in the acne family. They're similar to blackheads in that they form from pores clogged with dirt, dead skin, and/or oil.
The medical term for whitehead is "sebaceous plug." It's also common to hear whiteheads medically referred to as "comedones." (1)
What Is a Whitehead?
A whitehead is aesthetically unpleasant and is the ultimate sign that your pores are due for a good de-clogging. Whiteheads occur when a pore is blocked, and once clogged, the pore actually closes.
Whereas with blackheads, the pores are clogged but they remain open. When pores are blocked by dead skin cells, oil, and germs, you can expect to see whiteheads and blackheads.
What Causes Whiteheads?
Whiteheads are caused by clogged pores. Various factors might cause your pores to become clogged, and knowing what causes whiteheads can help you avoid them in the future.
Although we can't totally prevent dead skin cells, oil production, germs, or bacteria, whiteheads can be avoided by making small but impactful lifestyle changes. Small lifestyle changes and even making changes to your skincare regimen can result in limiting or preventing dead skin cells, germs, oil, or bacteria from clogging your pores.
While whiteheads may seem to appear out of nowhere, their development takes time. Whiteheads are caused by various factors, including lifestyle choices, genetics, and hormonal changes, to name a few.
Hormonal changes can promote acne breakouts and are one of the leading causes of whiteheads. Research shows that the production of sebum in the pores may increase due to certain life phases or changes such as puberty, menstruation, menopause, or stressful events. (2)
With hormone levels fluctuating up and down, whiteheads can affect teenagers during puberty, resulting in increased oil production within their pores and hair follicles manifesting as whiteheads, blackheads, or other types of pimples. During puberty, hormonal acne often appears in the T-zone, including the forehead, nose, and chin. (3)
There is no such thing as an acne gene; however, genetics can actually influence whether or not you're prone to acne. If your parents (or even just one parent) suffered from acne, then you are more likely to struggle with acne as well.
Studies show that your chances of getting acne are significantly increased if your mother had acne at any point in her life. So acne may be inherited through the X chromosome, according to research. (4, 5)
Hormonal acne is caused by hormonal fluctuations and can afflict adults and teens. Although more common in women, hormonal phases such as menstruation, menopause, or even medical conditions that affect hormone levels such as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) are often the culprit for acne-inducing hormonal changes.
Adult acne caused by hormones usually appears on the lower half of the face. This includes the cheeks and the jawline. Hormonal acne can manifest as whiteheads, pimples that come to a head, blackheads, or even cystic acne.
Hormonal imbalances resulting from menstruation issues, PCOS, or menopause may aggravate acne problems by causing inflammation and increasing sebum, which actually increases acne-causing bacteria. (5)
Many people are confused about the link between stress and acne. Acne is not directly caused by stress. It's actually the other way around. Stress, however, has been proven to aggravate acne in people who already have it. When a person is under stress, acne will not heal as fast as it usually would. So the longer the acne takes to heal, the more aggravated it can become as a result. (6)
If you suffer from whiteheads and clogged pores it’s time to take inventory of all your cosmetics and skincare products. You will want to make sure that skincare products and cosmetics that you use on a daily basis are non-comedogenic, and the way to know for sure is to check the ingredients against a thorough list, like this: https://clearstemskincare.com/pages/pore-clogging-ingredients-list These are ingredients known for mimicking excess sebum which clogs pores and results in various types of acne including whiteheads and blackheads. (10 & 11)
Whiteheads vs. Blackheads
Blackheads and whiteheads are two types of acne. They're different in form, but they're treated similarly.
Blackheads appear as tiny black dots on the skin's surface. Blackheads are actually open comedones.
Comedones are the skin-colored lumps that appear when you get a pimple. In the case of blackheads, these comedones are follicles beneath the skin.
When you get blackheads, these large pores become clogged with a substance called sebum or pore-clogging ingredients like coconut oil and Shea butter. So you might wonder what makes blackheads black.
The dark color is actually caused by a chemical reaction involving the sebum beneath the skin. The melanin is oxidized and causes the clogged pore to become black, or the pore-clogging ingredients oxidized (turned rancid) and thus changed color.
For whiteheads, bacteria fills the follicles beneath the skin. Because it's a closed condone, the follicle cannot receive air, and because the bacteria inside it doesn't undergo a chemical reaction, it remains white.
Where Do Whiteheads Appear?
Whiteheads can be found in a wide range of locations. They can really appear anywhere on your body.
For the face, whiteheads are more likely to appear in oilier areas, such as your T-zone where we are most oily. When it comes to the body, whiteheads can be found on your chest, back, shoulders, and arms. Even if you never had whiteheads as a teen, they can appear at any age during puberty into adulthood. (7)
Common Misconceptions About Whiteheads
There can be some confusion and misconceptions when it comes to whiteheads.
Whiteheads will not go away from excessive washing and scrubbing your face.
The extra scrubbing may actually irritate any existing acne that you may have if you aren’t following up with an AHA like mandelic or salicylic acid. But, more importantly, it's essential to know that whiteheads can cause long-lasting scarring if squeezed or picked at.
Handle whiteheads with care. Scarring can fade with time; however, scars can leave a substantial mark on the skin. (7)
How To Get Rid of Whiteheads
When it comes to treating whiteheads, there are various treatments. There are several different at-home and natural therapies as well as over-the-counter remedies.
Regardless of which approach you decide, touching your face can cause irritation to your skin and cause pores to be clogged with oil, dirt, or bacteria. Not only should you avoid touching your face, but even more importantly, you should avoid picking or popping whiteheads at all costs. (8)
Natural remedies are growing more popular as skin treatments for acne and whiteheads. Ingredients such as Vitamin A, Mandelic Acid, Aloe Vera, and Witch Hazel are popular natural remedies.
Vitamin A is high in antioxidants and reduces redness and inflammation while also stimulating healthy cell growth. In addition, Tea Tree Oil is a natural anti-inflammatory and has antibacterial properties.
PRO TIP: Vitamin A supplements are highly effective at combating acne internally.
Like Mandelic Acid, Aloe Vera is an extract that offers anti-inflammatory properties. Witch Hazel has astringent and pore-opening properties that may diminish whiteheads. (8)
Over-the-Counter Skincare Products
Over-the-counter whitehead treatments can exfoliate, reduce oil, and even increase skin cell turnover, which helps treat the underlying causes of whiteheads. If you choose over-the-counter products to keep whiteheads at bay, be sure they contain active ingredients backed by research to specifically help with unclogging pores, such as salicylic acid alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), glycolic, mandelic, and lactic acid, for example. (9)
CLEARSTEM Skincare offers an award-winning AHA mandelic acid serum that dissolves excess oil while stimulating collagen. Known as "The Blackhead Dissolver,” it melts blackheads within 10 minutes alone on your skin.
Exfoliating can also provide assistance with whiteheads. Exfoliants not only make the skin smoother, but they are perfect for removing excess dead skin cells.
When searching for the ideal scrub cleanser, choosing a gentle yet effective formula that provides you with exfoliation without causing irritation or dryness is vital. Even though exfoliating is an essential process keeping pores clear of oil, dirt, and dead skin cells, it is crucial to note that exfoliating too much may cause irritation to existing acne, so it's recommended to exfoliate a few times per week.
Taking care of your skin, in general, can help prevent whiteheads from forming in the first place.
Taking care of your skin, in general, can go a long way in preventing whiteheads in the first place. However, when it comes to your skincare routine and skincare habits, there are slight but impactful changes that can be made to keep your skin free of whiteheads.
When washing your face, it's recommended to use lukewarm water and a mild, oil-free cleanser. Avoiding anything harsh is essential in avoiding unnecessary irritation.
PRO TIP: Using hot water can actually trick your skin into producing more oil as the heat dries your skin out and tells your sebaceous glands to overproduce oil as a result!
Cleansing your face after sweating, such as after workouts, is highly recommended in addition to regularly washing your hair. Oil from your hair can actually clog the pores in your face. Keeping your smartphone clean and washing your pillowcases, sheets, and blankets regularly will also help get rid of oil, dirt, and bacteria. (8)
If you regularly wear makeup and use cosmetics, washing your face of all makeup every night before bed is vital to keeping your pores clean and free of buildup. When purchasing cosmetics, all products should be noncomedogenic. Be sure to check your makeup stash and evaluate what products are oil-free and which ones are not, discard any old or expired makeup that could be harboring bacteria and keep makeup tools and brushes clean.
It’s important to remember that even if your products are “natural” and “organic” it does not mean “acne-safe.” For example, organic coconut oil will just give you organic acne. Check for the following pore-clogging ingredients in all your hair, makeup, lotions, and facial products. Make sure your products don’t contain these ingredients to avoid future breakouts.
Whiteheads, although unpleasant, are extremely common. They're clogged pores that result from closed comedones.
The sebum inside the pore of a whitehead isn't exposed to air, so it does not oxidize as blackheads do. The key to treatment is being consistent in ensuring your pores are clean and free of dirt, oil, and bacteria.
A variety of changes can be made to diminish whiteheads. Natural and over-the-counter treatments have proven to be effective.
However, if you have made the necessary lifestyle changes needed to reduce whiteheads and have taken steps naturally or through skincare products to no avail, it's recommended to consult a skin care professional or dermatologist.
Source 1: How to remove whiteheads, and what causes them to form. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/315104#what-is-a-whitehead
Source 2: Everything You Need to Know About Whiteheads https://www.healthline.com/health/whitehead#TOC_TITLE_HDR_1
Source 3: Puberty Pimples: A Guide for Teen https://wfmchealth.org/pediatric-health-care/puberty-pimples-a-guide-for-teens/
Source 4: Is Acne Genetic? http://healthline.com/health/is-acne-genetic#takeaway
Source 5: When Acne Is All in the Family https://www.verywellhealth.com/is-acne-caused-by-heredity-15506
Source 6: Hormonal Acne: Traditional Treatments, Natural Remedies, and More https://www.healthline.com/health/beauty-skin-care/hormonal-acne#symptoms-and-causes
Source 7: Everything You Need to Know About Whiteheads https://www.healthline.com/health/whitehead#location-on-the-body
Source 8: 12 Ways to Get Rid of Whiteheads https://www.healthline.com/health/beauty-skin-care/how-to-get-rid-of-whiteheads
Source 9: 10 Remedies For Oily Skin https://www.healthline.com/health/home-remedies-for-oily-skin
Source 10: 5 Ways to Unclog Pores and 2 Methods to Avoid https://www.healthline.com/health/beauty-skin-care/how-to-unclog-pores
Source 11: How to Avoid Pore-Clogging Comedogenic Ingredients https://thegoodfaceproject.com/articles/pore-clogging-comedogenic-ingredients